Gaze of greatness

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9 Aug 2011
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Even as you reserve your seat for “Aarakshan”, Amitabh Bachchan rewinds to his rewarding association with the camera.

“Aarakshan” is attracting all sorts of controversies but the man who is the centre of attraction in this Prakash Jha film doesn't want to get embroiled in any one of them. As always, Amitabh Bachchan diplomatically sidesteps queries that require him to take a stand. Perhaps he has burnt his fingers too many times with a section of the media that thrives on ‘cut-and-paste' job or he simply wants to reserve his voice for his blog.

Sitting at the Eau de Monsoon restaurant of Le Meridien hotel in New Delhi, he calls “Aarakshan” his first issue-based film. One reminds him of his little known film “Main Azaad Hoon”, where the protagonist Azaad jumped off a high-rise building to protest against corrupt ways of the establishment. “It was more incident- or one can say event-based.” He has been shying away from sharing his personal take on the reservation issue. “No, I have clearly said that I believe in equal opportunity.” There is talk about social reservation giving way to economic reservation? “The debate is going on not only in the society but also at the ministerial level and in the Parliamentary committees. Let's see what comes out it. As of now after the Supreme Court judgement reservation is a constitutional reality and we have to live with it.”

Then what does the film have to add? “It brings out various things which have arisen out of reservation like the commercialisation of education. Anjum (Rajabali) and Prakash have come up with a balanced screenplay which gives voice to different concerns expressed by different sections.” Was reservation a talking point when he came to Delhi to study? “I came to the University in 1958. It was not there and we never talked about it.”

Bachchan plays Prabhakar Anand, the strong-willed principal of a private college who believes in giving everybody a fair chance irrespective of caste and economic status. Considering his father, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, was also an eminent teacher, a man of steely resolve, while playing Prabhakar Anand did he go back in time? “Something that you have lived with or experienced remains in your mind. We don't deliberately go out looking for that particular phase or moment. Yes, if somewhere during the course of performance it comes out it is but natural, like the importance he used to give to discipline and student-teacher interaction,” says the actor who has played a teacher twice before, in “Chupke Chupke” and “Mohabbatein”.

The presence of Anand Kumar of Super 30 fame was noted on the sets. Bachchan clarifies that he came to know about Anand Kumar much later but Jha knew him. “As I play a Maths teacher in the film his help was sought to get the exact way a maths teacher writes formulae and equations on the blackboard. So Prakash used to interact with him and then he used to pass on the information to us. I did Maths in college but I don't remember anything!” Finally a smile surfaces on his face as he sips warm water to keep the momentum going on a day marked by back-to-back interviews.

Many in the industry feel he didn't experiment enough during his prime. “I agree but I didn't get the opportunity.” He says the commercial aspect of cinema of those days was such that it didn't allow him to break free from a certain set of filmmakers. Now it seems there are no full stops. Each week he is offered something special. The latest being him playing Tagore. “I would love to but there is no concrete proposal as of now.” Was he once not offered the role of Mirza Ghalib! “Yes, I did get the offer very early in my career but it didn't work out.”

Having spent more than four decades in the industry, one is keen to know his evolving relationship with the camera. “Every day is a terrible task,” he says and takes a pause. “You cannot take everything for granted. Every day I am apprehensive before facing the camera, how it is going to turn out. Sometimes I rehearse lines for hours. We all try to reach a situation where we become so natural that the camera doesn't exist for us. I don't know if I have been able to achieve it.”

But he has been able to transcend generations, not only of filmmakers but also audiences. We are often told that a certain kind of acting works for a certain period. “I just consider myself fortunate to have been able to work with several generations and each generation has had its own methodology. Today, invariably, I am the oldest person on the sets. The age difference is at least 20 years.”

He says the idea is that through the character he is able to reach out to each and every person in the audience. “The audience should feel the character is speaking to him, that's the whole game,” he concurs as we go into a short discussion on acting. “I hope I have been able to convey it all these years. We work towards that and with me it has come out rather successfully over a period of time,” he says, never leaving touch with modesty.

Men behind the phenomenon

Rewinding to some of his favourite filmmakers, who contributed to his becoming a phenomenon, he starts with Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, the maverick who gave him the all important break with “Saat Hindustani”. “He was a socialist minded person. I remember when I went to Goa to shoot for ‘Saat Hindustani' we were all put up in one room. He used to work in the same room under a lantern and used to discuss things. It gave me a great sense of equality and team spirit. From Prakash Mehra I learnt his great sense of storytelling. With Manmohan Desai I realised how fantasies work with Indian audience. We used to laugh when he would describe scenes like the one in ‘Amar Akbar Anthony' where all three are donating blood to one person at the same time. It is not scientifically possible but it worked as a great scene depicting national integration. In fact, the entire film was like that but it proved a big hit. With Yash Chopra I imbibed on screen romance. Tinnu Anand and Mukul Anand specialised in creating spectacles, the visual perspective of cinema. In the present generation I fondly remember Sanjay Leela Bhansali for giving me ‘Black'.”

Wasn't he on the louder side in the film? “I don't think so. I believe the character demanded certain loudness,” he avers. “Then Balki gave me solid characters in ‘Cheeni Kum' and ‘Paa'.”

After so many years in the profession, does acting at times percolate into real life? “At times it does but you get to know….” He avoids discussion on this one.

Yet another persona of his that continues to fascinate audiences across age groups is the one as the host of “Kaun Banega Crorepati”. With the new season about to take off this Independence Day, Bachchan says he still feels excited about the show. “Over the years the profile of contestants has changed. Now more and more people from small towns are coming and winning handsome amounts of money. I like it.”

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